London Loop 21 to 24 – Harold Wood to Purfleet

The last sections of the Loop feel more manufactured than much of what has gone before. For most of their fifteen miles the paths have hard surfaces, including a long continuous mile besides roads. Soon after leaving Harold Wood (which is not a wood at all), the path goes through Pages Wood. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s a very tidy landscape, perhaps not surprising when it turns out that the whole thing is a new creation, with 100,000 trees planted since 2001.

Pages Wood

Turning a corner, a line of pylons marches through adding a further blast of modernity.

Pages Wood - pylons

The idea that pristine nature is to be found within the M25 is of course all romantic twaddle, a shadow of the pathetic fallacy. The landscape of Pages Wood was made by people – but so was this entire landscape, some of it centuries ago, some decades ago, and some (such as the huge landfill site at Rainham reached in the final section of the Loop) being created as we watch. Older is not the same as more natural, but it’s hard to shake the instinct that somehow it must be.

For most of the nine miles to Rainham, the path follows the River Ingrebourne, a narrow strip of woods and wetlands dropped between housing. It’s easy,  fast and rather uninspiring walking, with only one stretch edging round field boundaries through long, wet grass. Once through Upminster, it’s even possible to see the river from time to time. More impressively, the path is uninterrupted by roads for almost three miles, underlining how much even a small river can form an impermeable barrier.

Rainham itself is distinguished mainly by Rainham Hall, an imposing Queen Anne house only opened to the public a few months ago, after long restoration. The Loop passes the front door, with railings bedecked with temptations to enter. Since this was the first, and quite possibly the last, time I have ever found myself in Rainham, perhaps I should have seized the opportunity. But I didn’t, preferring to keep to the rhythm of the walk.

My original plan had been to stop at Rainham and come back another day for the final section along the river to Purfleet. But the day was young and another five miles seemed entirely manageable, so I crossed the old railway on a level crossing and the new HS1 on a particularly convoluted footbridge and carried on across Rainham Marshes. As the path reaches the river, there is an area of newish industrial units, where the team which builds straight paths had done a fine job, but the team which does bendy connections had never quite caught up.

Joining up 1 Joining up 2

The modern industrial estate stands on older foundations. The 1897 6″ OS map records a pub, a chemical works and a fish manure works. Just beyond where the fish manure works once stood, there is a row of large tanks and a pervasive smell of boiled rice where Tilda Rice does whatever it is you do to process rice.

Tilda rice

From then on, the path follows the river, past a vast area where marshland is being displaced by landfill at the rate of 1.5 million tonnes a year. Along the river there are odd structures in various stage of dilapidation harking back to a time when the river was more intensively used than it is now.  One of them looks initially like industrial junk, but closer up resolves into a sculpture of a diver, placed it turns out to disappear with the tide.

The Diver

Half way along is Coldharbour Point, a wholly unremarkable turn in the river – except that it is precisely opposite Erith where the London Loop begins. It is an odd feeling looking half a mile across the river to the stretch I walked three years ago and haven’t set eyes on since.

The weather was getting hotter and muggier. I had hoped that there would be a breeze when I reached the river, but the air was barely moving and there was not an inch of shade. The last couple of miles, past what were once the Purfleet rifle ranges and are now an RSPB reserve, were increasingly heavy going. Thunder started to rumble at a distance, gradually getting closer and bringing the relief of rain. I took refuge in the RSPB cafe, with the surreal sight of a row of birdwatchers, cameras and binoculars to hand, looking through a picture window from the comfort of a line of sofas. The only sign of movement was the occasional Eurostar hurtling through the middle distance.

And so finally to Purfleet, the wholly unremarkable and unmarked end of the Loop. It’s taken 17 walking days, unevenly spread over three years to do. It’s officially 152 miles long, though I have somehow managed to walk 164 miles without ever intentionally diverging from the route (except for the stretch made completely impassable by the flooding of the River Crane).

It’s an odd mixture – idyllic landscapes, canal towpaths, rolling farmland and innumerable parks giving way unpredictably to banal suburbia, light industrial grot and arterial roads. It’s taken me to parts of London I would never have got to for any other reason and given me a perspective on my home city I couldn’t have got any other way.  But now it’s done. Time to move on.

There are words about the later part of the route and pictures from pretty much all of it.

London Loop 20 and 21 – Chigwell to Harold Wood

Sunshine, buttercups, wildlife and panoramic views. On a glorious day, these two stages had much of what is best about the Loop, as well as a good dose of it in slightly desperate mood, trying to create the illusion of a rural idyll from distinctly unpromising raw material.

Even when the illusion is at its best, modernity intrudes unexpectedly. After a stretch of woods and meadows, with no sound except birdsong and passing aeroplanes, the curve of the path brings a sudden glimpse of Narnia, before dissolving into the more prosaic sight of the A1112.

Narnia

At several points there are sweeping views. In this low lying country, even a little height provides a great vantage point. Fourteen or so miles away, beyond the green, the skyline of the City shimmers gently in the haze.
City skyline, 14 miles

Pyrgo gatepostIn the corner of a field there is a rusting gate post, which is apparently the last remaining trace of Pyrgo House, a royal palace where Mary and Elizabeth Tudor spent part of their childhood. This corner of Essex seems to be littered with vanished haunts of the Tudors. Havering Palace came just half a mile before and Elsynge Palace was back in stage 17. Between them just outside Chingford at the beginning of stage 19 was Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, the only one of the buildings to have survived, and the only one where there is no evidence that she ever set foot.

Walking along a field boundary, a woman accosts me from half way across it. It took a couple of goes to get the message across, but a combination of shouts and gestures tells me that there are five deer somewhere nearby. It’s unclear what she expects me to do with this information, so I press on. Unsurprisingly, there are no deer to be seen, though twenty minutes later three small deer emerge from a wheat field and race across the path in front of me to disappear into woodland. Along the way, there have also been a rabbit, a fox, several pheasants and innumerable waterfowl, which is probably more variety than the rest of the Loop put together.

Signpost lost in trees‘Continue straight ahead, as the signpost in the corner of the wood reassures’, the directions instruct. But the signpost has almost completely vanished, with the finger pointing ahead quite impossible to read. It comes at a point where reassurance is not much needed, rather than at one of the many points where reassurance – and indeed a clear direction – would have been more useful. Along most of the route, the written directions compensate for lost or overgrown waymarking, with the Ordnance Survey as occasionally essential backup for both. Along this section, the directions seem vaguer, and include a passage where the route being described is clearly quite different not just from the waymarking, but also from the sketch map in those very directions.

The last forty five minutes are very different. The Loop designers have done their best, but they haven’t had much raw material to work with. The path follows a brook along what the route description calls a ‘steep sided sylvan dell’, where it is hard to imagine a greater mismatch between the floridity of the description and the dingy reality, before emerging to run in sedate order through parks and housing estates. The final obstacle is the A12, with stern instructions to walk 500m along it to a safe crossing point and then 500m back the other side. The prospect was depressing, the reality a pleasant surprise – not only was there no obstacle to walking straight across, there was a clear path and a central refuge, and even dropped kerbs to ease the way. The nanny state occasionally has a libertarian moment.

London Loop 18 and 19 – Enfield Lock to Chigwell

Teachers get ever younger, policemen get ever shorter – and so it seems do legs of the London Loop. As far as Enfield Lock, the average is seven miles; from Enfield Lock onwards, it drops to four and a half. So there’s a chance to accelerate the apparent pace, without actually going any faster at all.

There’s lots of water on this stretch, most of it artificial.  It crosses the River Lee Navigation and the River Lea decidedly non-navigation. It looks over the vast King George V Reservoir. Much later, it wraps round a flooded gravel pit before a stretch beside the River Roding. And where there is water, there are water fowl – a pair of swans with their cygnets, herons standing in the shallows, geese demonstrating axes of symmetry. My ornithology is somewhere between basic and non-existent, though, so I might be mis-identifying almost everything.

Walking on waterThe now-flooded gravel pit was apparently dug to provide material for building the M11, so presumably dates from the early 1970s. It seems that the Ordnance Survey has not yet caught up with this state of affairs, with rights of way continuing undeterred across the water. The lower map overlays the modern lake on the paths and river course on the OS 6″ map of 1897 (using the National Library of Scotland’s addictive tool) –Map overlay from which it’s obvious that the paths converge on a foot bridge which vanished a generation ago.

Comparing the maps also shows that the short stretch of the River Roding which the route follows is also a modern artefact – before the pit was dug, the river looped to the west of the lake. So the picture below is a completely artificial by-product of building a motorway. I wouldn’t have guessed.

River Roding

There’s a circus on Chingford Plain. You can hear it long before you know what it might be, and long after it has become all too clear. Somewhere not far from there, there’s a barbecue, never seen but detectable over quite a distance. And then there is the building roar of the M11, which lasts so much longer than the few minutes spent walking across it.  The illusion shimmers again.

The final stretch offers a view back towards the city. The Shard stands tall, a little over ten miles away. Chigwell station provides the means of getting there – the station with the second smallest number of passengers on the underground, at a point where the Central line seems as acute a misnomer as the Northern line at Mordern.

London Loop 17 – Cockfosters to Enfield Lock

It seems odd to walk out of a tube station and within three minutes to be walking along a muddy path without a building in sight.

Unsystematic study, possibly affected by sampling errors, suggests that more people walk their dogs on Good Friday than on any other day of the year.

The illusion of rurality continues to amuse. Looking across a meadow, gently rising towards a line of trees across the skyline – and a red double decker appears running along the road hidden by the trees.

Country bus

Near what was once Elsynge Palace, the path crosses the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have spread his cloak over a puddle so that the queen could cross unmuddied. The invention of tarmac has made the gesture redundant – and has made much of this stretch of the Loop feel a bit incongruous: paths along streams and through woodland where there should be some give (and after a few days rain, some discernible squelch) underfoot, but instead there is the hardness of urban pavement. The illusion shimmers once more.

The A10 is crossed by a footbridge, which is a big improvement on the A1, which is crossed by a detour.

There are more cemeteries along this section than I can remember in any earlier one. The last of the three is a bit surreal. A vast lawn apparently randomly interspersed with benches and flowers, which manage to look wholly unnatural while avoiding any suggestion of death. And then, in the furthest corner, a row of fresh graves, the soil still roughly piled on top.

I bought a 50mm prime lens a couple of days ago. This was its first outing. When I started taking pictures, a zoom lens seemed an unaffordable and unattainble luxury. Now, a prime lens feels almost an indulgence. In the same way that I used to be able judge exposure pretty well without a light meter, I learned to frame a shot by moving myself, not the lens. Both skills have left me, but the second is one I think it’s worth reawakening.

Spring blossom

London Loop 16 – Borehamwood to Cockfosters

It’s been three months since the last leg of the Loop and suddenly the angle of the light and the colours it picks up are very different.

I went unintentionally off the route three times – more than in any other leg of the Loop. Once was because I was paying attention to the OS map (which was wrong) rather than the Loop directions (which were right), once because I read too much into the angle of a waymarking arrow, and once because the path ahead was broad and tempting and the waymarking which should have alerted me to the turn I should have taken missing or obscure.

And there was one I caught – an avenue rolling out ahead but a turn to be taken to the left. There was a substantial finger post – but it was carefully positioned behind a mature tree so as to be almost completely invisible. Instruction manuals are all too frequently written by people who know how the thing works. They would in many ways be better if written by – or at the very least, tested by – people who know nothing about the thing at all. In the same way, I suspect paths are too often way marked by people who know the way.

Dual carriageway detourThere was another kind of diversion earlier in the route. When the path meets a busy dual carriageway, there is no alternative to walking down one side and up the other, in order to cross the road safely. It adds the best part of a mile in the slipstream of fast moving traffic, a twenty minute reminder that the Loop is in part a grand illusion, rus in urbes.

I walked the last couple of miles through fading light. As the trees became monochrome and their shade steadily darker, only the fallen leaves held some residual colour, almost fluorescing against the surrounding darkness.

 

London Loop 15 – Hatch End to Borehamwood

Another stretch of the London Loop. A few more slightly random thoughts.

London prairie

Obscure waymarkWaymarking on the London Loop is generally fairly good. It tends to be at its best, unhelpfully, when it is least needed. Clear paths with no obvious turnings sometimes provide slightly redundant reassurance with surprising frequency. Very obscure waymarkTricky turns or uncertain directions may have to be negotiated with no hint of guidance. At several point on this section, critical turns onto obscure tracks were marked by signs which were even more obscure. Sometimes even that faint help is not to be found. This is definitely one of the sections where the route notes are essential, as opposed to merely useful.

OS android mapThe other increasingly indispensable tool is the Ordnance Survey map app. At one level, it’s just the paper maps in electronic form, the sort of thing that isn’t supposed to work online. There is nothing about the maps themselves which makes any concession to their transmutation. Except that GPS makes all the difference. I may not be sure that I am where I want to be or should be, but there is now no need for doubt about where I am. And it’s never a struggle to fold on a windy day.

The path emerges from woodland to dramatic views across London. Harrow, it is suddenly clear, really is on a hill. And a constant stream of planes floats past in ghostly silence descending, it appears, towards a huge gasholder in Southall which is by far the most dominant feature of the entire landscape. The planes, it turns out, are precisely ten miles away, beyond the ability of my lens to resolve through the haze.

Final approach to Southall gas works

A little further on, the path skirts the edge of Bentley Priory, the home of RAF Fighter Command, the unlikely combination of a mansion designed by Sir John Soane and the existential struggle of the Battle of Britain. The house can be glimpsed through the trees, closer to hand pill boxes still stand ready for the final defence.

Defending Bentley Priory

One of the things I most like about the Loop is the way it creates illusions of rural tranquillity far beyond the reality of life inside the M25. There are stretches of woodland with not a soul to be seen where only the map reveals the houses an invisible stone’s throw away. There are many places where the only immediate sign of human activity is the roar of traffic from an unseen road. This picture seems to sum that up: climbing a slope through a hayfield suddenly brings a sign into view. There is indeed no hard shoulder – for rather further than 240 yards.

No hard shoulder


 

London Loop 13-14 – Harefield to Hatch End

Some random thoughts from today’s walk. And a few pictures.

Batchworth Heath

    • On a glorious June day, I met almost nobody in walking almost ten miles, including a stretch of two or three miles where I didn’t see a single soul.

White Heath Farm

    • Whoever knitted together stretches of path and field and woodland to make the London loop was a genius. Part of that genius is in making the gaps in the modern world seem much larger than they really are. But even genius can’t make everything vanish.

Second pylon

    • Another coal post, a relic of the 1860s, marking as it happens the boundary between Hertfordshire and long defunct Middlesex – and with a line clearly visible across the road, where modern road surfacing is still managed along those ancient boundaries.

Coal post on the Middx Herts boundary

    • I lost count of the buttercup covered meadows I crossed.

Woodcock Hill

    • The Loop is the London Outer Orbital Path, which makes calling it the London Loop redundant. On the other hand, just calling it the Loop would be incomprehensible. But I seem to be in good company. Or at least official company.
    • Navigating the Loop is entirely straightforward, except when it isn’t. Here you are on a fine broad path stretching enticingly up the slope ahead of you. There are no signposts or waymarks of any kind. Should you forge ahead? No, you should take the path on the left through the tiny gap in the fence, which barely looks like a path at all, even when you are standing right by it.

The way ahead

    • Wembley Stadium is more rural than you might think – and last seen in section 4, fifty or sixty miles back round the loop.

A prospect of Wembley

    • Trains on the London and North Western Railway, now operating as the London Overground, are air conditioned. This is no small thing.

LNWR Overground

  • It was a beautiful day for a walk.

London Loop 11½-12 – West Drayton to Harefield

Black Jack's Lock

Before yesterday, I had never heard of the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act 1861 (and, alas, neither has legislation.gov.uk). Duty was payable on coal brought into the metropolitan area and boundary markers were erected at every plausible – and implausible – point at which that boundary might be crossed. It turns out that a surprisingly large number survive, most cryptically labelled ‘ACT 24 & 25 VICT CAP 42’ (using the reference system for acts of parliament used until superseded by the gloriously not-quite-self-referential Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act).

 

Pictures, words and smells

A380 over Cranford
I am very slowly walking my way around the LOOP – the London Outer Orbital Path. By the end of last year, I had made it from Erith to Hatton Cross. A few days ago I set off to tackle the next stretch. It didn’t start well, as the path beside the River Crane was impassably flooded. I invented a diversion which took me along streets with houses almost as close as it is possible to get to the end of the runway at Heathrow, with planes seemingly scraping their wheels on the television aerials every couple of minutes.

We’ve all seen pictures of what that looks like, they are a feature of every story about new runways and new airports, and there’s been no shortage of those recently. Somehow the planes look bigger in their pictures than they seemed at the time (though somehow planes always look smaller in my pictures than they seemed at the time). But what the pictures can’t show is the smell. Across the width of the flight path, there is a constant low level tang of lightly roasted hyrdrocarbons. Most of the time, even there, there is not a plane to be seen. Some of the time, not a plane can be heard. But the smell is constant, refreshed every couple of minutes, just as it might otherwise start to fade.

Smell is in many ways the most evocative of senses, but is the one our multi-megapixel surround sound hi-res 3D media world doesn’t even attempt to transmit (technological dead ends such as Smell-O-Vision notwithstanding). Pictures of planes against clear blue skies tell you some of the story, but can’t tell you what’s missing from it. For that, there’s still no substitute for walking and breathing.